Momentum is growing across the nation for raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

However, North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders appear content to remain on the sideline as the current session of the N.C. General Assembly nears its end.

Despite speculation in January that 2019 might be the year the drive for age restrictions on tobacco purchases moved forward, no bill has been introduced toward that goal.

House Bill 725, co-sponsored by state Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, would have enhanced state initiatives to prevent young people from using tobacco products with a $17 million funding boost for both budget years. It has not been heard in committee.

In the 2017 session, bipartisan House Bill 435 would have raised the smoking and vaping age to 21. Lambeth was a co-sponsor of that bill as well. It was sent to House Rules and Operations Committee, where it collected dust for the entire 2017-18 and 2018-19 legislative sessions.

“As much as health committee chairs talk about the benefits to raise the age, there is still only limited support across rural North Carolina,” Lambeth said. “North Carolina has a rich history with both our tobacco farmers and strong corporate partners who have been the backbone of our economy. Tobacco remains an important part of that history.

“Yet, the health issues related to smoking are serious and costly issues for our state,” he said. “It is important that we continue to inform our citizens of the risk and that we particularly make sure our youth are aware of those risks.”

To date, 18 mostly Democratic-leaning states have enacted age-21 restrictions, along with Republican-leaning Arkansas, Ohio, Texas and Utah. Of the traditional tobacco states, only Virginia has age-21 restrictions. Some states’ 21 or older laws won’t take effect until 2020 or 2021.

The shift to age 21 comes with an estimated $2.5 billion cost in lost annual sales from consumers ages 18 to 20, representing about 2.5% of the tobacco industry’s revenue stream.

“Thirteen states across the county — and across the demographic and political spectrum — passed laws to raise the tobacco age in 2019 alone,” said John Schachter, the director of state communications for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free kids.

“Tobacco 21 is an important step forward, but it must be part of a comprehensive strategy that also includes, for example, ending the sale of the many flavored tobacco products that lure kids, raising tobacco taxes, and funding tobacco prevention and cessation programs,” Schachter said.

Support grows

Nearly three-fourths of Americans support raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, according to a Gallup poll released in July.

Gallup found that support for age-21 restrictions “is strongest among adults aged 65 and older — though majorities of other age groups support the policy change as well.”

“Support is a bit lower among young adults aged 18 to 29 — some of whom the policy would affect — but even among this group, two in three support it,” Gallup said. “Seventy-four percent of nonsmokers support this change in age restrictions, while 64% of current smokers agree.”

As recently as 2014, the top Big 3 tobacco manufacturers — which included Lorillard Inc. at that time along with Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.— were adamant about preserving 18 as the minimum age for using their products.

However, in November 2018, Philip Morris USA, Reynolds and ITG Brands LLC signaled support for a U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendation to Congress to support the initiative to raise the minimum age to 21.

The strategic policy changes likely come in large part from an FDA request in September that Juul Labs Inc., R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., NuMark, Fontem Ventures and Logic submit details on how they plan to curtail use of their products by youth, in particular flavored electronic cigarettes.

Reynolds said on Nov. 3, 2018, that it supports age-21 restrictions at the federal and state level, as well as implementing safeguards to prevent online purchases by youngsters and “straw” purchases, which Reynolds defines as “any person who purchases on behalf of an underaged person.”

A bipartisan proposal in the U.S. Senate, including from Senate leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was submitted in May in support of a federal age-21 law.

“For some time, I’ve been hearing from the parents who are seeing an unprecedented spike in vaping among their teenage children,” McConnell said. “In addition, we all know people who started smoking at a young age and who struggled to quit as adults.

“My legislation will be similar to the current system, where retailers have the responsibility to verify the age of anyone buying tobacco products — we’ll just raise the age from 18 to 21,” he said.

Then hemp appears

North Carolina state Rep. Lee Zachary, R-Yadkin, who represents sections of western Forsyth County, said that “hemp is the gorilla in the room right now” that has overshadowed age-21 legislation.

Passage of N.C. Senate Bill 315, also known as the Farm Bill, has been held up because of heated discussions over hemp farming in the state, particularly the fact that the industrial hemp plant is the same species as the marijuana plant.

State agriculture officials and some legislators from Eastern North Carolina have said that growing hemp can be a viable alternative for tobacco farmers.

Industrial hemp plants have little THC, the chemical that makes people high when they consume marijuana. Hemp is grown for its fibers, seeds and oil.

However, some legislators — supported by law-enforcement officials — say legalizing industrial hemp would essentially make marijuana legal because they are indistinguishable.

“If that issue is resolved in favor of the agriculture industry, then raising the age to purchase tobacco wouldn’t be as controversial,” Zachary said. “But that raises more questions that I won’t address until I have more facts.”

State Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, said that North Carolina’s long history with tobacco is evolving as society shifts from tobacco dependence.

Just 15% of adult Americans smoked at least once in a 30-day period during 2018, as well as just 7.9% of 12th graders.

“I think attitudes will change and more restrictions will be adopted,” Krawiec said.

“There are also concerns that young people are considered adults for many activities at 18 years of age, including taking up arms and going to war. Many citizens think this freedom should be preserved for 18-year-olds,” she said.

Long tobacco history

It’s not surprising that North Carolina legislators are lagging behind other states with age-21 restrictions, said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem and a leading national expert on state legislatures.

“This is an issue that only recently emerged on the agenda of many state legislatures in a serious way,” Dinan said. “Sometimes, movements of this kind just take a few years before they spread more broadly and fully to various regions. So, if anything the speed with which the movement enjoyed success in 2019 is striking.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the ranks of states with such laws increase further in coming years and to include more Southern states,” he said.

Dinan said it’s possible that the Republican leaders of the N.C. legislature may favor allowing Congress to set age-21 restrictions.

The offices of Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, did not respond when asked about the legislative leaders’ stances on age-21 restrictions.

“The announced support of the most powerful member of the U.S. Congress for a national law,” Dinan said, “likely drew increased attention to efforts to pass state laws, and in a way that helped state efforts.”

“On the other hand, to the extent that this signaled the real possibility of a national law passing, this might have taken some of the urgency out of state officials’ moves to pass state laws,” he added.

Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association, said some states “have shied away from passing Tobacco 21 due to concerns about how the expected decline in tax revenue will be paid for, as well as reservations from lawmakers who aren’t eager to be painted as pushing nanny state policies.”

Bargaining chip

for expansion

There had been speculation that age-21 restrictions would be deployed as a bargaining chip in the Medicaid-expansion debate and state budget negotiations, given the loss of the GOP supermajorities in the General Assembly, said Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University.

“However, goodwill on both sides for negotiation has seemed to fade, which might be why it was not introduced,” he said.

Madjd-Sadjadi said he would not be surprised to see age-21 bills introduced by both parties in the 2020 legislative session.

“The one filed by Republicans could be based on the headline of raising the age to 21 but containing exemptions, a graduated increase in age, weak enforcement and maintaining a low cigarette excise tax,” he said.

“The one filed by Democrats could contain stronger enforcement and much higher tobacco taxes as a means of expanding health care in the state.”

Zachary, the legislator, said his concern is that age-21 tobacco restrictions could “drive more kids to marijuana.”

“I would certainly support legislation that would make the health risk of vaping more widely known,” he said.

“I am certainly not in favor of anyone using a product that is harmful to their health without knowledge that such activity is harmful or could be harmful.”

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